This story was awarded honorable mention in MacLean s Canadian Short Story Contest
TORONTO’S good enough for me.” Henry Marshall spoke sullenly. “You can go if you like. I won’t.” He was a slim, neat thing; pale-faced, and blackhaired; sleek and weak-looking; the sort you would not expect to find married to a woman like Nancy. She was small and shabby and clean, and her brown hair was coarse and faded from religious regularity of shampooing with yellow soap. Yet, in spite of ten years of city poverty, there was something about her that suggested the out-of-doors; something of the farm that had clung to her, that was now urging her back.
She smiled at him, a smile that was grave, pleading, deprecatory, reproachful, and pitying. Yes, all of those. Nancy’s gray eyes could, and invariably did, mirror in almost incredibly quick sequence the permutation of her emotions.
But Henry kept his eyes deliberately averted, and his twisted smile expressed only the unbelief, scorn, and self-assurance that proclaimed the narrow-grooved working of his mind.
Nancy leave him? Pooh! Nancy who had been more than a wife to him? Nancy who had catered to his every whim for more than ten years? Nancy who had been content to spend her evenings at home with the two children while he entertained his friends at the Paradise? Nancy leave him? Pooh!
But Nancy was standing there, cool, collected, unwavering in her decision.
“I’m going, Henry. I’ve always known that uncle Mart would leave the place to me. He knew—and I knew—that sometime I’d go back. I’ve always felt it. I’ve always known that my going back there was an inevitable thing—like the coming of spring—or—or— sunrise.”
“And what about the kids?” he asked.
Nancy’s mind reverted at once to her own childhood on the Ottawa valley farm; the great hillside orchard and straggling friendly barns, and the big stone house with its wide sunny windows that overlooked the wide sloping lawn, and the gay flower-beds that she and aunt Tessie had taken such pride in. Aunt Tessie had died just two weeks ahead of uncle Mart. It was cruel that Nancy had been unable to go to her, or to comfort the old man; but now they were both gone, and the farm
was hers. They were the only parents that she had ever known, and from the day when they had taken her, a pathetic two-year-old mite, from a city shelter, to the day she left them, in wilful search of life and roaming desire, they had whirled their whole little universe around the one little pivot that was Nancy.
She spoke with a tone of fine assurance. “They’ll love it. Children all love what is creative, because their minds have not yet been poisoned by the world. They can make things grow, and they will grow themselves like . . .” She broke off and was lost in meditation for a moment of poetic bliss. “Why, Henry, can’t you see? It will be freedom for them. Out-of-door meals in summer; blazing, fragrant-scented wood fires in winter; the smell of new-mown hay, and fresh earth and growing things, instead of gas and soot and litter-strewn backyards. And—”
Henry wheeled. “It’s all right. I’d a blamed sight rather smell a gas-buggy or a factory chimney any day than cows or pigs. It’s all right for you to go making things sound like poetry, but what about the storms in winter? And sleet? And slush? And mud and manure? Pleasant. Eh? Days like today, especially.”
She hated his sarcasm. She bit her lip and walked slowly toward the window. She drew aside the cheap lace curtain, a gray and foggy-looking rag—although she had washed it just two weeks ago—and looked out.
The dense stream of traffic, veiled in a heavy driving snow, moved like an army of wriggling maggots through the slush of Queen Street far below her window. The wind came in gusts, plastering the soft flakes against the grimy glass, and even above the screeching confusion of the city streets, Nancy could hear the roaring of the early March wind. She turned back toward Henry and smiled. Smiled ! That wind had whispered to her of birds and bees and green fields and summer music.
“Oh, Henry! Can’t you see? I—I can’t understand why you object so to living in the country. It’s really
nice, Henry. Clean and wholesome. I was nearly eighteen before I knew anything but country life, and . . .”.
“Yes, I know all that. We’ve been over it all before. But let me tell you once more, and for the last time, you’ll make no sodbusting country hick out of me.”
Nancy hardly knew whether to be angry or amused.
“You considered me a hick when you met me? Is that it?”
“You were different.” He spoke in shamed defense. “Girls from the country aren’t called that anyway. But the men! oh, lord!”
She ignored his supercilious attitude. Then her eyes seemed to grow hard and dark, and her slight figure appeared to take on added height and dignity. She spoke a little slowly, although without actual hesitation, with the level decisiveness of an anger under control, and a sweeping, blanketing scorn.
“Henry Marshall, I’ve given you over ten years of my life. I’ve waited and prayed for you to make good. I’ve patched and mended and made over old clothes for the children, and gone without, myself, in order to give you your ‘chance.’ Always you’ve had ‘something in sight.’ I’ve sacrificed everything to that invisible ‘something’ and what have you done with my sacrifices? Tell me that. What have you done with them? I can tell you. Good clothes and bad whisky. Pool. Gambling. Evening restaurant ‘feeds’ for you and your sporty gang while your wife and children ate warmed-up stew and day-before-yesterday’s bread because it was cheaper than today’s. We’ve moved, and moved, and moved, always to a locality and rooms a little worse than the ones we left, till we’ve come to this.” With an impassioned gesture of her thin hands she took in the two rooms that were their home.
One tiny room, not more than seven feet square, served as kitchen and pantry, while the other larger room with its heterogeneous collection of scarred, mottled and threadbare furnishings offered itself at once as bedroom, living-room and dining room. At the end of a long gloomy hall, a damp, dark and foulsmelling bathroom served three other families besides the Marshalls.
But everything in the Marshalls’ rooms had a
“scrubbed” look. Even Nancy and the children. Everything, that is, except Henry. He looked polished, instead. He had his tubes and jars and bottles and boxes with sweet-smelling creams and powders and lotions and soaps. But then, a man waiting for his “chance” must keep himself well groomed and shining even if his wife and children do have to content themselves with cheap, strong yellow soap and an occasional can of talcum from the five-and-ten.
Evidently all this crowded into Nancy’s mind at the moment, for she spoke of it then.
“I’ve never begrudged you the things you’ve needed to keep yourself presentable at the store. I’ve always been fool enough to love you enough so that I didn’t mind going without, myself—and stale bread and stew are better for the digestion than fresh bread and pork chops. I’m not complaining for myself, and I’m not nagging. You know I’ve never nagged. It’s the children I’ve got to think of now. Barbara’s nine this June and Mickey’s six next month, and instead of getting ahead and giving the children what they’ve a right to, you’re getting worse all the time. If I sell the farm, as you suggest, it would be the same old story. You’d have ‘something in sight’ again, and . . .”
She broke off suddenly and with an impatient fling of her head turned toward the door. Little feet were trudging up the long stairs—tired little feet, laboring under tired little bodies—and Nancy felt a painful swelling of her heart as she listened and waited. Her pale delicate features became tragic as her thoughts clarified and resolved themselves into an intensity of determination. She thought of the heat of the previous summer; sizzling, suffocating, exhausting heat, when Henry had taken himself, along with his friends from the store, out to Sunnyside with its invigorating freshness, leaving her and the children to swelter and wilt and sicken in the box-like space they called home.
Never again, she vowed to herself in desperation, would she subject their tender little bodies to the cauldronic torture of summer heat in that overcrowded district. There would be no need to.
“I’m not really leaving you, Henry, in one sense. You can come along with us. If not now—why—again. Later. But if you won’t, why, you can tell your friends that we’ve just gone to the country for our health.”
She knew Henry’s pride. She knew that her leaving him would wound it, but if the wound could be kept secret, it could be more easily endured. And in spite of his weakness and selfishness, she realized that she still loved him. She hated him, too. She wanted to hurt him. And she wanted to spare him.
The children shivered in through the door and into Nancy’s arms. Mickey’s face, so much like his daddy’s, looked pinched and blue under the gray wool toque, and his little body’s outline was completely lost in the bulky coat made from an old army tunic that Nancy had picked up for a trifle in a Jew’s store a few doors east on Queen Street. Barbara’s gray frieze coat, a three-
ninety-eight bargain from a departmental store, flaunted the incongruity of a collar and cuffs of red fox that, over ten years ago, had been “the groom’s gift to the bride.”
Nancy handed her purse to Barbara.
“I want you to skip down to the White Front and tell them to send up some things right away. They’re on a list in the purse.
Be sure they give you the right change. That’s a ten. Next week we’re going to the country to live.
We’ll have a real supper tonight and maybe daddy’ll stay and have supper with us, too,”
She read the question in Henry’s eyes.
“Uncle Mart’s insurance money. A
thousand. The cheque came this morning. All the rest of his money went to his half-brother down in Boston. I’m going to give you half of it, and if you make good with this so that we could live decently, in a decent part of the city, I might then sell the farm and come back.
How’s that? Fair enough?”
Henry sauntered over to the window before he answered.
“Sure. I guess so. I could take that course in bookkeeping and English that Glover took.”
He did not even sound grateful and Nancy was once more stung with the conflicting emotions of love and hate, of the desire to hurt and the desire to spare. He had become a part of her, as she was a part of him.
"KTANCY had been so busy establishing herself in the old home that two weeks passed before she realized that Henry had not answered the postcard she had mailed on her arrival at the country station. She wrote again. The letter was returned.
Then she began to feel disappointed when none of her neighbors called, except “Bull” Mott, the district “vet” who lived in the village. She arranged to supply him with butter and he was to call every two weeks. “Bull” was an old friend of uncle Mart’s. Nancy was about to mention the unfriendliness of the neighbors to him one day, but then, she thought, “I mustn’t expect too much. Farm folks are busy with their own affairs. They’ll call sometime.”
TN THE farmyard throbbed the heartbeats of the farm.
Jingle of traces; splashing of water in the wooden troughs; low mooing of cattle; crowing of a'lordly rooster from the crooked rail fence; soft insinuating whinny of a colt left alone for the first time by his mother whose turn it was to share in the labor that spring demanded;
birds calling and
strutting, quarrelling and loving, and building nests.
Nancy felt her heart swelling with the growing glory of it all, and she thrilled with the pride of ownership as she watched her two hired men starting the spring plowing. Sixteenyear-old Wilbur and nineteen-year-old Joe, members of the Carey family whose sons numbered eight, and whose farm lay across the road.
• Mr. Carey, an insignificant little body, was always glad of a chance to “hire out” any of his boys, for the simple reason that on one occasion, his wife, who was an Amazonian brunette, had been so inconsiderate as to present him with a girl baby; and that girl baby, for over sixteen years now, had been always in need of more dresses and more fol-de-rols
than he had ever known existed. Janey v/as a lady.
Joe and Wilbur ate and slept at home, an arrangement insisted upon by their mother in order to preserve the good name of the Careys after she had arrived at the conclusion that there was something wrong about Nancy’s marriage. Kindly, gawky Joe had blurted out this truth to Nancy one day when she had offered to fix over the kitchen loft for the two of them, as she knew that the Carey house was too small for the Carey family.
It was cruel, lashing, and for a time Nancy felt helplessly crushed under it. But the farm year was beginning and she had no time to think of personal hurts. Her mind became occupied with other things — plowing, seeding, cropping, threshing, manure, stock, marketing—all the endless, essential, sequacious demands of the land that once more had claimed her.
And what blessed tiredness those nights! Tiredness that precluded all chances for deep
thought or worry, with Mickey’s and Barbara’s well-fed little bodies resting in healthy animal placidness in the next room, and the gentle night wind playfully brushing aside the white frilled curtains to caress the slumbermoist rosy warmth of cheeks that were fast filling out into cherubic roundness.
And the days! Hours of sublime fullness, from the silvery sheen and rosy mist of dewy dawn to the hour when the dusty red-gold banners trailed themselves across the bronzed sheath of early evening.
May came, with her pink and white and vivid greens, a prodigal spilling over the farm of the reviving radiance of spring. June followed quickly, with her soft kiss of promising warmth, and the pregnant earth sent forth her shoots and stalks and blossoms. Barbara and Mickey told excitedly of five blue eggs in a nest in the orchard, and of a ridiculous fat robin who scolded and pleaded when they peeked at her treasures. Back of the orchard the old sow lay in the sun feeding her litter of thirteen pink little gluttons who grunted and squealed and pushed in ludicrous battle, accompanied by screeches of delight from the two children. Bees droned and hummed drunkenly over the ten-acre clover field, and returned with their precious loads to the hives at the edge of the orchard.
Nancy’s diligence was superb, and her endurance nothing short of marvellous. There was a garden and potato patch that any able-bodied man might be justifiably proud of; flocks of ducks and chickens and noisy geese that were silently envied by other women of the district—aunt Tessie had always kept to the thoroughbreds—cattle and horses, fat and sleek; crates of eggs and crocks of butter that were called for weekly by a grocer from the city; jars and bottles on shelves in the damp sweet coolness of her cellar gradually being filled with jams and jellies and vegetables and pickles as the season advanced; and autumn found everything full—except her heart.
Not once had she heard from Henry. She commenced to wonder how she had managed to keep up all summer. As the farm duties lightened, her thoughts became heavy with the emptiness of the whole scheme of her affairs.
She had the farm—her hundred acres—and all that any farm needed to make its operation a success.
But she lacked companionship. She could not go out and ask for it, and the utter helplessness of her position crept on her, confusing, wearing, but still her pride forbade her calling on the neighbor women who would not call on her. On errands to the village she lashed herself into an appearance of proud and smiling unconcern when old girlhood friends nodded, bidding her the time of day, and smiled elevated, pitying smiles that crucified her.
School opened for the fall term, and Barbara and Mickey trudged off reluctantly each morning, leaving
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Chores, the late crops—apples, potatoes, corn—she was losing interest in them all. Barbara’s flower garden, too, mocked her. Nothing was left there but the ragged red asters, brave and gaudy, like firebrands, in their sombre little world. Their beauty meant nothing to her. Nor did anything else around her. Not the world of crimson flame, made mellow in the golden haze of autumn stillness. Nor the maples with their splashes of yellow fire, that looked as if they had caught and were hoarding for winter the past glory of summer sunsets. She was blind with the misery of troubled indecision.
Then came the autumnal wet spell. The drip, drip of endless rain; the lowhanging shroud of cold fog that followed; then, the cold nights with the ghostly moonlight making long shapes of shadows in her room, and the still, aching, binding frost of winter in her heart.
CHE bore it as long as she could. She ^ wrote three letters; one to their old landlord; one to Mr. Peel, the manager of the store where Henry had worked; and one to the school where Henry had told her he intended to enroll.
All three letters were answered.
The landlord informed her that “Mr. Marshall gave up the rooms in April, leaving no address.” From the school principal she learned that Henry had enrolled, paying three months tuition fees, but had attended only six classes. Somehow, that letter eased the pain in her heart. Henry had meant well; he was just weak. Just weak. But the third letter !
It was from Mr. Peel. Snatches of it burned themselves through her bleary eyes into her bewildered brain.
“. . . yourself to blame . . . impatient, irresponsible wives ... a real gentleman . . . respected by employer and fellowworkers . . . home ties broken . . . ruined . . . gang of bootleggers . . . Elm street ... jail .. . finish his sentence on December twentieth . . . recognize your duty . . .”
She threw herself face downward on the lounge, the letter crushed under her. Hours—years—an eternity of quivering anguish passed. The door opened. Startled back to sensibility, she sat up and stared at “Bull” Mott. She remembered that he was to call for his little crock of butter that day.
“What’s the trouble, Nancy?”
“Nothing.” She shoved the letter under the cushion. “I guess I wasn’t feeling very well. I lay down ... I guess I . . . must have been asleep. Did you rap?”
The mountain of his body stiffened.
“’Course I rapped. An’ there is somethin’ the matter. You wasn’t asleep, neither. An’ you’ve been cryin’ an’ I want you to tell me . . .”
Nancy’s weak voice broke in, “I don’t think . . . I . . .”
“Bull” put up his hand. “That’ll do. Don’t you tell me you don’t think it’s none of my business. I know it ain’t, but I want to know jes’ the same. I know part the trouble. Old Sary Craig down to the post-office started it—tellin’ how a letter you writ to Henry Marshall come back with somethin’ on it about the party not bein’ known. Nancy, girl, when you married that city guy, you should ’a’ brung him here an’ showed him to these folks. Country folks don’t b’lieve nothin’, only what they see.”
Nancy’s shoulders shuddered and drooped, and her sad eyes grew dark with horror.
“Not that! No! Not that!” she protested in an agonized whisper. “I thought it was just because we weren’t getting along—weren’t living together—and farm women stick, no matter what their men
are. I thought it was that. I thought . . . Oh, dear God!” She put her hands over her eyes, sobbing in near hysteria.
After a while she got control of herself and began to talk.
“I knew—I’ve known all summer— that there was talk. Joe Carey told me some. But not that. I never thought there was any doubt about my marriage.”
“Get him to come here!” “Bull” commanded.
She shook her head helplessly. “I can’t. I’ll sell the farm and go back. It’s my fault,” and she handed him the letter.
“Bull” read it and snorted. “Rot! Any man that has to have a woman to hold him up out the muck’s no dam’ good. Jail’s where he ought to be. Do him good, mebbe. An’ still, it leaves you in a—a—kinda perdic’ment. You can’t get him here an’ you can’t tell them he’s in jail an’ won’t be out till near Christmas. I dunno hardly what you could do. I dunno.”
She sat silent, staring at the stove. The fire had gone out. What did it matter? The afternoon was gone and she had done nothing. What did that matter? What did anything matter?
Four-thirty. The children would be coming home any minute now. Something did matter. She rose slowly and held out her hand for the letter. Crumpling it in with an old newspaper, she crammed it into the stove and lit the fire again. The children mustn’t know.
“I’ll get your butter now.”
Down in the cellar, tying paper over the crock to keep the lid from chipping, the impulse came to her: “I won’t sell, either. I’ll stick. It’s Henry’s own fault. Bull’s right. I’ll stick. Barbara and Mickey are part of me, and it’s for them. I’ll stick. I’ll show them that I don’t care what they think. I won’t let them rob the children of what is theirs. If I take them back there, they’ll get delicate —maybe consumptive—Henry’s kind of. They’ve a right to their chance for health. Now when they’re young it’ll count.”
Upstairs again, she managed to laugh. “I’m going to stick. I just decided while I was down cellar. Woman’s prerogative, you know.”
He took the crock and opened the door before he spoke. Nancy thought his voice sounded weak for so big a man. “I’m glad, Nancy. I’m glad. I won’t have to go back to Carey’s again for my butter. She never put enough salt in it, anyhow.”
TT WAS the evening of the last Friday
of November before the first snow flurry came, at first reluctantly, with its powdery fur, to blanket the weary earth waiting in frozen silent patience for her winter’s rest, after her long period of travail. Then, with a seeming prodigality born of sympathy, the quiet clouds opened their hearts and let loose throughout the long night their tranquil burdens, infinitely soft and woolly white, and morning gave to the two city-bred children a world of dazzling enchantment, its unsmirched whiteness a miracle, luminous, perfect.
“If we could only keep from stepping on it!” It was Barbara, with her face pressed eagerly to the window, who spoke in an awed whisper.
“I’m gonna make snowballs. Great big white ones like the ones on the pos’ cards,” Mickey jubilated, struggling with his underwear that insisted, somehow, on getting its legs and sleeves interchanged.
Nancy came in with a big jug of hot water.
“You can’t wash in the kitchen this morning, Barbara. Mr. Mott and Joe Carey are here to kill the pig and I have the big boiler of water on the stove. You help Mickey and I’ll have your breakfast ready by the time you get downstairs.
You needn’t hurry, though. It’s Saturday.”
Mickey left his breakfast half-eaten, and the forenoon was almost gone before he reappeared at the kitchen door.
At once he commenced to recite in unholy glee all the gory details of the slaughter, much to Barbara’s horror and disgust and Nancy’s shocked amusement.
“ . . . an’ they gived urn a hot baf in a big barrel an’ taked off all the feathers off um, an’ they hanged urn up by the hin’ legs an’ cut um open an’ taked out all . . .”
“Mickey Marshall! Shut up! O-o-oh! Mamma! Make him stop!” Barbara screamed her rebellion against the repulsive details. But the unsympathetic little barbarian finished triumphantly, stoically; “An’ they taked out all his insides!”
Barbara fled to the dining room, slamming the door behind her, and Nancy squeezed Mickey to her affectionately while she spoke reprovingly.
“You’re getting to be a big boy, Mickey, and big boys must be kind to their sisters and not talk about such horrible things in front of them. Girls don’t like to hear things like that.”
At this point, Barbara opened the door and hurled out at him: “You’re getting to be a perfect little heathen, so you are!” and forthwith slammed the door again.
Mickey turned, wide-eyed and quizzical, to his mother.
“What’s a heathen, mamma? Is it something like a orphing? The kids at school said ’at you was a orphing, an’ kids ’at has no daddy is a orphing, an’ orphings ain’t nice to play wif. An’ they said ’at kids ’at has a daddy should live wif him, an’ if they ain’t got no daddy, like me, they ain’t nice to play wif. An’ I tol’ them I got a daddy, so I ain’t a orphing. Am I mamma? Eh?”
“No, darling. You’re not an orphan. And you’re not a heathen. Barbara just said that because you made her cross. You run out, like mamma’s good little man, now, and make your snowballs.” She almost pushed him from her.
So it had hit the children! Cares of that day’s labors were lost in this one big care; hopes newly rebuilt were once more shattered; determination and strength were oozing from her. The changing, emptying, refilling of rendering kettles became an automatic procedure —she did not even know when her arms and her back commenced to ache. The day dragged dazedly to a close, and she lay in stupid, quivering misery through the interminable night.
In the morning, for some unaccountable reason, she hurried through the chores, and walked with the children up the snowy road to the church. In the vestibule she paused to knock the snow from her feet, and just then there emerged from the little anteroom a group of men, among them the old minister, smiling and rubbing his hands. At sight of Nancy the smile faded a little, and in its place came a look of ineffable pity and tenderness, and he stepped forward quickly, with his hand outstretched to welcome her, while the others looked on in amazement, startled by the first appearance of Nancy in the little church.
Then once more those elevated, crucifying smiles greeted her, but somehow, the kind words of the minister and the gentle reassuring pressure of his hand blinded her to the meanness of the others.
“And some day next week, Mrs. Johnson and I are going to call—and I hope you will ask us to stay to supper with you.”
The blessedness of those few homely words! All through church Nancy could have cried from sheer thankfulness of heart, for the impulse that had guided
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her to church that morning. Instead of joining in the opening prayers like a good Christian, she was thinking:
“If I had come to church right from the start! I’ll get up the nicest supper for them. I’ll give them a few combs of that clover honey to take home with them; it’s the best in this district. I’ll be doing it—not because I want to curry favor or sympathy—just because I’m thankful he’s human. And maybe he’s human enough to take home a few bottles of that dandelion wine. It’s such a good tonic. I’m glad! Glad! Company!”
For Nancy was only flesh and blood, and the devastating loneliness of a woman set apart from her neighbors had gone almost past the limit of her endurance.
“My text for today is taken from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the seventh chapter, verses one and two: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ ”
Clear and mellow as a Christmas bell the old man’s voice rang out, and Nancy knew somehow that his message was for those neighbors; those people who smiled their elevated, pitying, crucifying smiles when they met her; those unrighteous judges before whom she had never had a chance to clear herself. She blessed him for it.
When service was over she walked out between her two children, her head held high, paying no attention to the other members of the congregation. And so she could not see that something in their faces that reflected the gentleness and shame and pain so deeply grounded in those country folks, and that needed only the touch of simple eloquence in the humble sanctified air of the church to awaken.
On her way home through the frosty sunlit noon, she became lost in baffled retrospection.
Her ideal of married life seemed to have faded; grown dim; so she could not picture it as she had done over ten years ago. What was it supposed to be? Entire submission of woman’s physical and mental self? Utter submersion of her opinions and desires to her husband’s? A fifty-fifty partnership for them—with the children left out of consideration? Might she better have suffered poverty and privation all her life and allowed her children to do the same, than to have dragged herself and them under this ugly black shadow of scandal?
She could not find the answer, and so, when the little old minister and his wife called on her the following Thursday, she asked him for it, just when they were preparing to leave.
“There are cases, Mrs. Marshall, where a person has to get right down to cold reason and an intelligent philosophy, and where soft sentiment has no place in the reasoning. Yours is one of them. You still love your husband; but he has failed you, and almost wrecked your life. He has failed his children. You offered him the opportunity to make good here with you and he refused. You will have to be both father and mother to your children. Affection, cheerfulness, good health, and clean surroundings constitute the birthright of every child. You, even though you are their mother, have no right to deprive them of their inheritance.”
“Well, that’s that!” thought Nancy after they had gone. “I’m doing the only thing that’s right—the only thing.”
But still it did not seem to be the right answer; did not satisfy the yearning of her heart toward Henry. She dared not write to him—with a woman like Sary Craig in the post-office. She tried to hate him. She tried to forget him. But that was not the answer, either. He was a part of her as she was a part of him. No longer twain, but one flesh. One flesh. She was not complete without him. Wish-
ful, despairing bitterness tore her soul.
Then suddenly it came to her on the eighteenth of December.
It might have been just inspiration. But then, again, equally it might not. It might have been that miracle of love —that mellow magic—high and good and holy, that fills with tenderness and forgiveness every heart awaiting the Christmas day, that symbol of God’s love and forgiveness. Whatever it was, it was with her when she wakened that morning, and it grew, and grew, and grew through the morning hours, and gave her strength and courage to cross the snowy sunlit road and rap on Mrs. Carey’s kitchen door. Then . . .
All the petty pride and small selfdignity of the two women melted in the rushing warmth of the Carey doorway— without explanations; without excuses; without apologies; and suddenly, they were talking—a little tremblingly at first, to be sure—but talking; a little selfconsciously—but talking.
Mrs. Carey was telling Nancy about the trouble she was having with rolling the tiny hem on the flared skirt of Janey’s new dress—it was to be a Christmas surprise—and Nancy was offering her help and advice. As if no barrier had ever existed between them.
Then she cleared her throat. Her face grew a little red and hot, but the words came.
“Mrs. Carey, I was wondering if you’d let Janey come over and stay with Mickey and Barbara for a couple of days. I’d like to go to Toronto to see my husband and I don’t feel that I can take them with me. He hasn’t been well, and I’ve just found out that he is in an institution. I—I— . . . He didn’t write himself to tell me. I guess he thought I’d worry. I’d like to see him before Christmas, and I thought that perhaps you’d let Janey ...”
She paused on a high note of pleading that was almost tremulous. Mrs. Carey’s voice came, warm and bright and eager, as the broad beam of winter sunlight that slid through between the parted blue gingham curtains and lay in a golden pool on the faded linoleum.
“Now, why didn’t some of us ever think of that before? You might’s well gone to see him long ago. ’Course. You just let me know when you’re ready to go. Joe’ll take you to the station, an’ you stay as long as you got a mind to. There’s enough here to look after your place, an’ the children too. Maybe you got some Christmas shopping to do, too. It’d be nice to see the stores in the city round Christmas times. Yes, it’d be nice,” and her voice sounded so hopelessly wishful and thwarted that Nancy experienced a sudden stab of perplexing pity for the woman, and she knew that she could never feel any hardness or hate toward her again.
NANCY sat waiting in the private office. The warden entered, cordial, sympathetic.
“He’ll be in in five minutes. I told him you were here. It’s too bad you couldn’t persuade him to go to the country either now or later on. He’s not strong. He’s been a model prisoner, and I’ve given him a great many liberties, but—he’s delicate.”
Nancy had asked the man for the full particulars of Henry’s arrest. She would be able to spare Henry the shame and humiliation of a confession. Spare him. Not hurt him.
The door opened softly and the warden slipped out. Nancy turned to look and she almost cried aloud in pain and pity.
“Henry!” she quavered and held out her hands. He moved toward her, his face, unutterably weary and pale, drooped in shame. Nancy was weak; trembling. She tried to talk but her words sounded far away, stupid, unimportant. She began to cry and Henry wiped away her tears. He hadn’t spoken a word. He
made her sit down again, while he stood before her, still holding on to her hands. “We can talk here. The warden said so.”
She found her voice again. “I wrote to Mr. Peel. That’s how I knew you were here.”
An agonized question tore itself from him hoarsely. “The children—do they know?”
“No.” She stroked his hands, awkwardly, almost embarrassedly. “I burned the letter. Nobody but our minister and myself and one very good friend of mine will ever know. I told them all you were in an institution for your health.” She waited a moment before going on. She was thinking fast. “I’ve been to that school. You can still finish that course on the fees you paid. I brought some money—two hundred dollars—and all I want out of it is just enough to buy some little things to take to the children for Christmas. It would start you. You can make good yet. I’ll sell the farm and come back. If you’ll only promise
But Henry had slid awkwardly to his knees, burying his face in her lap. “I don’t want it, Nancy. Oh, Nancy! I don’t want it. I just want your forgiveness. And—and—I—want your love.
And I—I—want ...” He broke off and sobbed. “I guess that would be too much—to ask—after—all.”
Nancy stroked his head. “What is it that’s too much? What? Tell me Henry. What else do you want? Oh, my dear, what else do you want?”
No longer twain, but one flesh. One flesh. Was it possible that he wanted . . .? No. It couldn’t be. That would be too—too—utterly perfect!
“Tell me, Henry. You have my love. You’ve always had it. And my forgiveness. Tell me, dear. You don’t want . . . Can it be . . ' . You wouldn’t— come . . .?”
Henry raised his eyes to hers in piteous fearful eagerness.
“If you’ll take me. I want to go home with you, Nancy. Away from here. If you’ll take me. I’ve had a long time to think—in here. A long time. God! It’s been awful! But I’m glad. Glad. I’ve had a long time to think. I’m sorry. I’ve been no good. But I love you, Nancy.”
“Let’s go down town and do some shopping for Christmas,” she said quietly.
She managed to slip away to a telephone booth in the big departmental store. It cost her more than she had ever dreamed a telephone message could cost. But what did that matter? She called Mrs. Carey’s.
“We’ll be home tomorrow night. I’m bringing Henry. He’s not strong yet. But I’m bringing him.”
'NTANCY could never remember after•LN ward exactly how they got home. She was too ecstatically happy to be sane.
But there was the house, all lit up, as they drove through the yard, the sleighbells flinging their chimes through the starlit frost of the clean night; a glimpse of a huge Christmas tree that had not been there when she left home; a door flung open; cries and embraces and welcomings—and a few tears; the table all set for a banquet—just for two; Mrs. Carey in her best purple silk, fussing and fluttering about Henry, and chasing the children upstairs to bed; Bull Mott coming in from the barn with news of the beautiful heifer calf that had come just that afternoon; and then—they were alone together, at home.
Henry turned to her. “I never thought it would be like this. A house like this— lovely. And that woman—and that man —and Joe—doing all this. Are—country people like that?”
His humble appreciation stirred her. Never, she resolved, would she tell him of those other months.
“Yes,” she answered, very softly. “Country people are like that.”